BRUINS: The Unforgettable Ride

June 15, 2011 is a day I’ll remember as long as I can remember anything. It’s the day the little brother of the Boston sports scene became the man of the house.

It’s been over a month since the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, their first since the heyday of Orr and Espo in 1972. Looking back now, it’s easy to remember just that moment of victory, the images of Zdeno Chara, Mark Recchi, Patrice Bergeron and Tim Thomas lifting the greatest trophy in sports above their noggins, the duckboat rides watched by millions and the ongoing party that lead to one player who was allegedly sent home for having a bit too much fun.

But before that, there were many amazing games and breathtaking saves and heroic goals, all moments that can never be forgotten. There were twists and turns that seem unreal now, including calls (myself included) for the head coach to be fired during the playoffs.

So many factors got this team to that final whistle in Vancouver, where all the only tasks remaining were a handshake line and a trophy presentation. In some instances, the Bruins played like the best team. In others, they were more lucky than good. In all, the team took advantage of the bounces, played their hearts out, got past potentially devastating injuries, won three Game 7s and came back to the Hub as incredibly deserving champions.

With a month of perspective, I’d like to highlight some of the reasons why the Bruins are spending their summer vacation with the Cup.

A LESS BUMPY PATH

What I’m about to say takes nothing away from what the Bruins accomplished, but facts are facts: things happened to other teams, especially in the Eastern Conference, that helped the B’s become champs.

This discussion starts invariably with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby was on his way to a career season, scoring 66 points in 41 games, when he was sidelined with a concussion and did not play after Jan. 5. Crosby’s fellow superstar, Evgeni Malkin, then blew out his knee, missing the season after Feb. 4.

Behind the sterling goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury and Dan Bylsma’s can-do coaching style, the Pens still managed a four-seed in the East and took Tampa to seven games in the first round before bowing out. With Crosby and Malkin healthy, it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh would have been an easy out in Eastern playoffs. We’ll never know, but the Bruins benefited from their misfortune.

The top seed in the East was Washington, who beat the Rangers in five games in the first round. The Bruins were on a collision course with the Caps for the East Finals, but the most surprising of all playoff results would befall Washington when Tampa swept them in the conference semi-finals. I don’t know if Alex Ovechkin is hockey’s Karl Malone, his teams tend to shrink from big moments and this year added to his line of playoff disappointments. Again, the Bruins lucked out by not facing them.

Philadelphia, the defending East champs, suffered from goalie schizophrenia with Peter Laviolette unable to make up his mind on which atrocious netminder should fail miserably in the playoffs. The Flyers dealt with injuries with Chris Pronger appearing in just three postseason contests while Jeff Carter missed the first two losses against Boston. There would be no letdown against Philly anyway, but it’s clear the Flyers weren’t at their best, leading to the major changes we’ve seen this summer.

The Bruins went to the wire twice in the Eastern Conference playoffs as the styles of Montreal and Tampa proved to be major challenges. But all season I felt the East was wide open, and any team that got hot at the right moment could get to the Final.

It sure wasn’t easy, and I hesitate to say the Bruins ever “got hot” at least in terms of stringing together victories, but the B’s certainly had the hot goaltender and the hot defense and the strong line chemistry to get to the Final.

I wasn’t thrilled about playing Vancouver. In fact, I wasn’t thrilled about playing any of the West’s top three teams (Vancouver, San Jose or Detroit). Top to bottom, those teams all had more talent than the Bruins. But none of those teams had their determined mix, and none of them had Tim Thomas, either.

The Canucks were missing some parts on defense and seemed totally out of sorts on offense once the Sedin sisters and Hungry Hungry Burrows were shut down. Throw in the Luongo meltdowns and the Bruins were able to edge out a team that was probably better on paper.

The Bruins proved worthy of standing atop the NHL mountain when Game 7 ended. But they got help. While it doesn’t take away from the victory, it must be acknowledged.

THE MALIGNED COACH

I’m not a huge Claude Julien fan. You probably knew that already. Even after they won the Cup I STILL felt like maybe he isn’t the right coach for this team long-term.

But…credit needs to be given. Twice during the playoffs the Bruins found themselves down 0-2 and twice the team came back. Julien did not allow them to get down and steered them in the right direction.

I hammered Julien for sitting Seguin in favor of Michael Ryder, and through the first three games of the Montreal series, I wasn’t wrong for feeling that way (0 points, 3 SOG). But in Game 4, Ryder pulled through big. He wound up playing every playoff game and scored 17 points (he totaled 41 points during the regular season).

I next hammered Julien for playing Shawn Thornton instead of Seguin in Game 3 of the Final. I tweeted the move (which came after the B’s scored two total goals in the first two games) meant Julien didn’t care about winning the series.

Well, I was wrong. Thornton brought toughness and energy for the rest of the series and Seguin wound up playing the last four games anyway due to Nathan Horton’s concussion.

Maybe after winning the Cup and bringing the right attitude and preaching the right style of play I should cut Julien some slack, and trust that he knows more about this stuff than I do…

Wait, what am I saying? I just lost my sports fan instincts there for a second. Of course I know more about this than Julien! Now where’s that phone number to call Felger and Mazz?

ALL THE RIGHT MOVES

OK, maybe not ALL the right moves by GM Peter Chiarelli led to this championship. The Tomas Kaberle trade was a dud. The guy was brought in to improve the power play and scored eight PP points in 49 total games in Black and Gold. All that cost were two draft picks and a promising forward prospect. He goes down as the Bruins version of Eric Gagne.

But enough with the negative. Chiarelli pulled a number of excellent moves, between trades, draft choices and free agent pickups that led to this championship. His other in-season moves this year were terrific, shipping out the dead weight of Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart (a stay-at-home type heading for free agency rendered redundant by the emergence of Adam McQuaid) to the Thrashers (err, Jets) for a package including Rich Peverley.

Peverley didn’t put up gaudy numbers after the trade (just seven points in 23 regular season games), but provided a great third and fourth line presence and was supremely versatile by playing both center and wing. When Horty went down in the Final, it was Peverley who stepped up and played first-line minutes alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Peverley responded by scoring two goals in the Game 4 shutout victory and proved an invaluable cog in the Game 6 and 7 victories.

A few days before the Peverley trade Chiarelli moved a second round pick to Ottawa for Chris Kelly. For the rest of the season and playoffs, Kelly anchored the third line, winning face-offs and showing toughness, grit and a bit of scoring from that spot. He wasn’t slowed down by a dive into the goal that broke his face in Game 3 against Montreal. He managed 13 points and a plus-11 while playing in every playoff game. The Bruins do not win the Cup without Kelly. Period.

Going into the season Chiarelli shored up the club for success, including extensions for Chara and Bergeron and re-signing the likes of Recchi, Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk. They traded underachiever Dennis Wideman and a first rounder to Florida for Horton and Gregory Campbell. We all know what Horton meant especially in the playoffs, but Campbell had an outstanding year centering the fourth line and was clearly more than a throw-in.

There was the drafting of Seguin, the future first line center who could become the best player of all. That pick of course came because Brian Burke decided Phil Kessel was worth losing two top 10 picks after ’09. Kessel has played exactly zero playoff games since the trade while Seguin already has a Cup.

But perhaps the best move of the offseason was the one Chiarelli didn’t make.

All summer Thomas’ name was mentioned in trade talks after his disappointing ’09-’10 season. Tuukka Rask was the future. Thomas was the past. Move him for a goal-scorer and move on. Well, Chiarelli knew Thomas needed hip surgery and went into the season also knowing he would have two capable goalies. Rask lost the first game of the season in Prague. Thomas won the second. That led to one of the greatest seasons ever for a goaltender, all because Chiarelli kept faith Thomas could do it again.

The beat goes on. I hammered Chiarelli for giving Andrew Ference an extension last year, but he proved to be so rock solid. Chiarelli managed to keep young guys like Krejci and Milan Lucic while knowing Kessel was the right one to move.

Despite not having anything left to prove, Recchi re-signed twice, Chiarelli knowing how important he was to the room. Recchi was the veteran leader who taught everyone how to win. I’d be worried about his void in the room, but I’m confident he’s passed on his best attributes to Chara, Bergeron, Lucic and Seguin so they can be mini-Recchis for the rest of their careers.

Unlike the ’10 Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks, the Bruins are set for continued success. They miraculously find themselves with nearly $9 million in salary cap space with Brad Marchand still to sign. They are stocked in the minors, with Jared Knight, Jordan Caron and Ryan Spooner leading the way. Oh, and they also managed to steal stud Dougie Hamilton with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft, a lean, mean D-man compared heavily to Rob Blake. Thanks again, Burkie.

THE BEST THERE IS

Tim Thomas cemented his legacy as an all-time Boston sports icon with his astounding regular season and incredible run to the Stanley Cup. By now you know the numbers and accolades: his .9382 regular season save percentage was the best in NHL history, combined with his even 2 GAA he earned his second Vezina. In the playoffs, Thomas was equally great with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 GAA as a Conn Smythe shoe-in.

It wasn’t always easy. After losing the first two games to Montreal I blasphemously tweeted that everyone had “tricked themselves into believing Tim Thomas was a goalie that plays well when it matters.” My concern was not unfounded given his scattershot style and, well, this. He also struggled in the Tampa series, allowing at least four goals in four of the games.

But Tim indeed came up big when it mattered. He shut out Game 7s against Tampa and Vancouver. He allowed one or zero goals in 11 of 25 playoff contests. Once the Bruins scored the first goal in Game 7 of the Final, I knew they would not lose, solely because of Thomas. I have never had so much confidence in any player in any situation.

Thomas’ story is part of what makes his meteoric rise so compelling. The Quebec Nordiques took him 217th overall in the ’94 NHL Draft, yet he went on to complete a four-year career with the Vermont Catamounts before the professional journey began in ’97. Over the next five seasons, Thomas would lace up in Finland, Sweden, the East Coast Hockey League, the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League before finally making his NHL debut with the Bruins for four games in ’02-’03.

During the lockout, Thomas went back to Finland, where he dominated SM-liiga, Finland’s top pro league, notching a .946 save percentage and 1.58 GAA in ’04-’05. He was set to return to the league when he was persuaded to come home to play for the Bruins once again.

After winning the Cup, Thomas talked about his past in the post-game press conference. Because of how strong the Finnish league was, and how well he played there, he told the assembled press staying in Finland after the lockout would have suited him fine. He’d have been just as happy staying there for the rest of career as he would have playing in the NHL. (EDIT: He starts talking about this about 1:20 into this clip.)

It was a fascinating sentiment, but given that it came from Thomas, the super-humble family man who could walk away from this at any second and be the exact same guy, I guess it wasn’t altogether surprising.

In this world where we constantly question the dedication or motivation of our sports stars, where the quest for fame and recognition drive the daily debate, Tim Thomas is the kind of guy you feel proud to root for.

Having said that, Thomas is not a goody-two shoes. This play exemplifies Thomas’ aggressiveness on the ice, and stands as the single play by which I will always remember him and the ’10-’11 Bruins:

Game 3 was a must-win. Earlier in the game, Aaron Rome laid one of the dirtiest hits in recent memory on Nathan Horton, running both from the contest and ultimately the series. It was the karmic shift the B’s needed. They exploded for four goals in the second period and turned the game into a physical showdown they would not lose.

The Canucks weren’t going away. Despite their emasculation for 9/10ths of the series, the Sedin sisters were always there, always lurking, always potentially breaking out and taking over as they had so many times before.

About 6:30 into the third, the Sedins were out there in a rare situation where Chara was not, and Seidenberg committed a rare giveaway in front of his own net. Henrik came up with the puck and made a move toward Thomas into the crease. At the last second, the puck trickled to the left where Boychuk was waiting to make a play, although Sedin did manage to get a shot off.

Thomas knew Boychuk could make a play on the puck. That left Thomas to make a play on Henrietta.

Notice Timmy never leaves his crease. By checking Sedin away, he was saying: “No. Not here. Not now. This is my area. You’ll have to shove me back to get this space.” And nobody was more surprised by what happened than Sedin.

Just like how the Canucks must have been surprised at how good the Bruins actually were. Like any great championship team, it started with the goalie. The Bruins scored four more goals that night, winning 8-1, then took three of the next four to win the Cup.

LAST THOUGHTS

Of all the amazing things the ’10-’11 Boston Bruins accomplished, perhaps most amazing was taking a city where hockey had become an afterthought and creating an ice renaissance that could have long-lasting effects. So many kids who looked up to Ortiz and Brady and Pierce now look up to Chara and Bergeron and Thomas.

They want to pass and create like Krejci. They want to lead and score like Lucic. They want to bruise like Thornton, shoot like Boychuk, grind like Campbell and race like Seguin.

They want to come together with their hockey brethren and experience 1/10th of the chemistry, brotherhood and togetherness that created an unlikely champion.

Like the Patriots who demanded to be introduced as a team, the Red Sox who never stopped despite impossible odds and the Celtics who rallied around the African allegiance concept of ubuntu, these Bruins won together. Perhaps Thomas and the Chara/Seidenberg pairing led the way, but the team won because everyone made a difference.

Will we ever see anything like this again? Well, I guess that’s why we watch. Because we hope we might. We hope our teams will bring us the kind of joy and excitement this team brought New England.

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